The first trip I ever made to the olive growing world was to Andalusia in Southern Spain around five years ago. It was an eye opener. Along with 11 other media people from Canada, USA, Russia, Serbia, China and India, I visited olive groves, travelled through Andalusia’s trademark low hills covered with neat rows of olive trees for miles and miles, as far as the eye could stretch and ate a series of meals cooked entirely in extra virgin olive oil. We interacted with olive farmers, farm workers from outside the EU (lower wages!), restaurant chefs, administrators from Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture, even chefs from El Bulli who had come to cater to a party held to honour a book launch on – what else? – cooking with olive oil.
Subsequent years were to see almost the same group with a few additions and subtractions in other olive-growing countries: Italy, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and Greece. There are many countries that grow olive trees, starting with a handful of new countries, like India itself. However, the tree has dominated the Mediterranean landscape for millennia and when we think about olive oil, the countries of the Mediterranean come to mind. Though the Mediterranean basin extends to three continents – Asia (Jordan, Syria, Lebanon), Europe (Portugal, Spain, Italy, France) and North Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco) you could be forgiven for thinking that the sole olive producing country is Italy. Walk down the aisles of any of our supermarkets and all you’ll see are Italian brands. And thereby hangs a tale.
In Baena, a rather undistinguished town not far from Cordoba, Andalusia, there is a large cooperative of olive oil for supermarket brands. While we were being taken around the factory, we saw towering piles of cartons that openly said “Product of Italy”. Except that we were not in Italy, but in the neighbouring country. The bosses in the cooperative thought it was a huge joke, but all of us media walas were aghast. That wasn’t, sadly, the only scam that was being conducted under the very noses of a dozen media persons from all over the largest olive-oil consuming countries in the world. There were others, and all because of the skewed ratio of demand and supply in the world today.
That in itself is because of the way that olive oil is being portrayed in the world today: as a magic elixir that cures all ills. There undoubtedly is such a thing as the Mediterranean diet and it does include industrial quantities of olive oil (only the extra virgin first-press though). But that’s not all. The famed Mediterranean diet contains the prototype of a healthy lifestyle. There is clean air, plenty of walking, a high proportion of vegetables, a relatively small quantity of meat and lots of seafood. There are other factors as well. Wine is virtually the only alcohol drunk and meal times are sacred.
In the Mediterranean region, no matter which part you are in, grabbing a coffee and sandwich to gobble in the car is unheard of. A burger in place of lunch is an unknown concept. As is dinner eaten while surfing the television. In that part of the globe, when you eat, that’s all you do, usually in the company of your family. So the consumption of olive oil is only one piece of a jigsaw puzzle. It is a mistake to assume that just cooking regularly with olive oil precludes disease.
While Spain is the largest producer (no fewer than 300 million trees for a human population of 30 million) Greece is the largest user: every other country has parts that don’t grow olive trees, like the extreme north of Italy, and hence little usage. In Greece, both the archipelago and continental Greece grow olives and use them extensively in their cuisine. On the island of Crete, I personally did not meet a single person who did not have at least ten trees in their backyard. In Tunisia, on the other hand, hardly any olive oil is consumed by the locals. It is all for export, that too, in the form of container loads rather than branded olive oil which commands a higher price.
What usually happens to oil from Tunisia and Turkey is that their oil gets shipped in containers to Italy, where it gets blended by master blenders, along with nameless olive oil from Greece and Spain to turn it into a beautifully bottled name which is a household name in Italy and a highly sought after brand in the rest of the world.
I wish that Tunisian olive oil did make its way to our shores more frequently than it does currently. Like Indians, the Tunisians eat rich stews made with chilli paste, turmeric, cumin and cardamom seed besides cardamom and cinnamon. Not surprisingly, there is a parallel with our own cuisine. Tunisian olive oil tends to be far more neutral in flavour as opposed to the rich fruitiness of Cretan olive oil that is made chiefly from an olive called koroneiki or Andalusian olive oil made from two extremely intense olives called picual and picudo.
The trouble with picual, koroneiki and leccino (some of the many varieties of olives in Italy) is that the cuisine that has developed around them has no parallel, however remote, in India. Thus, bell peppers are roasted and sprinkled over with good olive oil as a wonderfully tasty cold starter in Southern Europe, where the principal ingredient is simple and the oil is the icing on the cake so to speak. That’s not how Indian cuisine works, so the olive oil we import would do well to be bland and neutral rather than fruity or astringent.
But let’s not forget our indigenous cold pressed oils in the race for good health at a high expense. At one time, mustard oil and sesame oil were cold pressed, and even today reviving them would bring the promise of good health to greater numbers. Though extra virgin olive oil is a healthy oil, we shouldn’t think of it as a great way to fry pakodas.